A new law that imposes harsher penalties on gun trafficking is giving U.S. prosecutors a powerful tool to combat the illicit flow of weapons from the United States to drug cartels in Mexico.
The cartels use the weapons to protect their drug smuggling operations, fueling an overdose epidemic that is claiming the lives of tens of thousands of Americans.
Justice Department officials say that in the year since the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was signed into law by President Joe Biden in June 2022, they have charged more than 100 people under its gun trafficking and straw purchasing provisions.
The landmark legislation introduced the first major changes to U.S. gun safety laws since the federal assault weapons ban of 1994. The law established a standalone firearms-trafficking conspiracy offense that is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. It also criminalizes straw purchasing, which involves buying a firearm for someone who is legally prohibited from purchasing a gun.
Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said Wednesday that the Justice Department is using the criminal authorities under the new law “to identify and hold firearms traffickers accountable.”
“The firearms-trafficking provision has proven particularly useful at the Southwest border,” Monaco said at a law enforcement event in Washington hosted by the Justice Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to highlight government efforts to combat illegal gun trafficking to Mexico.
She noted that more than half of all firearms trafficking cases have been brought by federal prosecutors in border states such as Texas and Arizona.
In recent years, drug trafficking from Mexico to the U.S. has received wide public attention, but not the influx of weapons moving in the opposite direction.
U.S. and Mexican officials say the gun trafficking problem is equally grave, with just as deadly consequences for people on both sides of the border.
“These weapons empower drug cartels to intimidate local communities, challenge state authority and expand their deadly drug trade back into the United States,” Monaco said.
Just how many weapons are smuggled into Mexico remains uncertain, but the number is believed to be enormous. One estimate suggests it could be as high as half a million weapons a year.
A recent ATF study found that nearly 70% of firearms recovered in Mexico between 2014 and 2018 and submitted for tracing were linked to the United States. A Mexican government estimate puts it as high as 90%.
ATF Director Steven Dettelbach said that Mexican cartels are seeking high-powered, military-grade weapons, not just any weapon. He mentioned as an example the M134 mini-gun, which can fire up to 4,000 rounds per minute.
“Weapons like this present an extreme danger when they land in the hands of criminals, a danger not only to the public but to the law enforcement agents on both sides of this border as well,” Dettelbach said.
While the Southwest states serve as a main source of weapons smuggled to Mexico, the problem is not limited to the region, Dettelbach said. In March, two men from Cleveland, Ohio, were arrested after selling nearly 100 weapons to ATF agents posing as Mexican cartel members.
The influx of weapons to Mexico is being fueled in part by Mexico’s strict gun laws. There is only one army-run gun shop in the nation of more than 120 million people, and it reportedly issues about 50 permits per year.
As a result, Mexican drug cartels get most of their weaponry – from handguns to military-style assault weapons — from the U.S., where guns are readily available and can be purchased by hired mules who smuggle them across the border, experts say.
In 2021, the Mexican government filed a $10 billion lawsuit against U.S. gunmakers, accusing them of facilitating the trafficking of weapons to Mexican drug cartels and fueling violence in their country. A U.S. judge dismissed the lawsuit in September. Mexico is appealing.
The litigation is not aimed at the U.S. government, and U.S. officials say Mexican law enforcement authorities do combat gun trafficking.
“The perception sometimes that perhaps Mexico is not in the fight is wrong,” said Ken Salazar, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. “The reality of it is, they’re in the fight with us.”
U.S. officials credited Mexican cooperation for a string of recent gun-trafficking prosecutions.
In March, Roberto Lugardo Moreno Jr. pleaded guilty to purchasing an AR-15 rifle for a Mexican drug cartel that was linked to the notorious kidnapping and murder of U.S. citizens earlier in the year. Monaco said the case was made possible by Mexican cooperation.
In May, Mexican authorities arrested Michel Bacasegua-Barriga, the alleged leader of a prolific transnational firearms trafficking group based in Nogales, Sonora, after he was indicted in Arizona.
“These are just two examples of the outstanding work that U.S. and Mexican law enforcement are performing every day to combat cartels, trafficking organizations and violent crime,” Monaco said.
Monaco and other officials touted recent gun seizures made under a 3-year-old ATF-led initiative known as Operation Southbound, which seeks to curb the flow of firearms into Mexico in coordination with Mexican authorities.
Between fiscal year 2021 and 2022, ATF firearms seizures with a nexus to Mexico increased by 17%, while ATF trafficking investigations more than doubled, Dettelbach said.
From October 2022 to March 2023, nearly 2,000 firearms were seized under Operation Southbound, an increase of 65% over the same period last year.
But this number is dwarfed by the enormous influx of weapons into Mexico, and some experts say law enforcement operations alone are not enough to tackle the problem.
“There are no simple solutions to this problem, but one obvious policy is to adopt stricter arms control laws in the United States,” Jason Blazakis, director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said during a recent House hearing on transnational organizations.
“Simply put, America is arming the Mexican drug cartels, and that must stop,” he said.